A list of dances from the OED
Because the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) captures the breadth and variety of the English language, something that one can trace through its entries are cultural fads and crazes. With that in mind, we have pulled together a list of dances mentioned in the OED, some new, some old, some still popular today, and others lost to time. Tell us your favorite dance craze in the comments!
1. pop goes the weasel
Today, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ is remembered as children’s song or nursery rhyme, but it actually started out as a popular country dance in the mid-19th century, sharing its name with the tune or song that has come down to us today.
2. Virginia reel
Square dancing fans are probably familiar with this American country dance, which is derived from the English and Scottish country dance Sir Roger de Coverley.
This widely popular ballroom dance originated in Argentina, but is probably of African origin. The dance is characterized by slow, gliding movements and mixed in with ‘pointing positions’. The word tango comes from Spanish, and originally referred to a dance festival of Africans or Gypsies.
4. turkey trot
A ballroom dance to ragtime music that originated in the US in the mid-19th century, the turkey-trot is so called because of how the dance steps look similar to the fast, jogging trot of a turkey.
A style of West Indian dancing to reggae, the skank involves the dancer bending the body forward at the waist, and then raising the knees and ‘clawing’ the air with the hands in time to the beat. The word first appeared in English in the 1970s, and is unrelated to the derogatory term.
There have been dances called the ‘twist’ since the 1890s, but ‘the Twist’ that most people know refers to the dance immortalized by Chubby Checker in his 1960 smash ‘The Twist’. And, while nothing comes close to the original hit, let’s not forget his later singles: ‘Let’s Twist Again’ (1961), ‘Slow Twisting’ (1962), and ‘You Stopped Twisting. Why?’ (1964).
Originating in Poland in the 16th century, this lively country dance for couples is danced in triple time, and is characterized by how dancers tap their heels or stamp their feet on the accented beats. The word mazurka comes from the accusative or genitive singular of mazurek, the name for the dance in Poland.
Although not all may be aware of it, the hula hoop (trademarked in the US) takes its name from the hula, a Hawaiian dance, which, with its six basic steps, portrays through gesture natural phenomena and historical or mythological subjects. The hoop takes its name from the similarity in motion between the dance and the motion needed to hula hoop.
Performed by several people in single file, who have placed their outstretched arms on the shoulder or waist of the dancer in front of them, this Latin-American dance consists of three steps, followed by a kick. The dance is probably of African origin; Spanish conga is the feminine form of congo, of or pertaining to the Congo region of Africa. The bandleader Desi Arnaz is widely credited with popularizing the dance in the US in the late 1930s.
Based on the popular song written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the dance involves arm movements that mimic the motion of the coupling rods on the wheels of a locomotive. The song is notable for having reached the #1 spot on the US Billboard chart in recordings by two separate acts, by Little Eva in 1962 and Grand Funk Railroad in 1974.
Derived from rumba, the mambo is a dance of Latin American origin, and also refers to the music played with this dance. The name mambo probably comes from the Haitian Creole term mambo, which referred to both a voodoo ritual dance and a kind of voodoo priestess.
One of the many dance crazes of the 1960s in the US, the swim was essentially a variation on the Twist. The dancer, as you might guess, would move their arms and body in a swimming motion.
Popular in the US in the 1930s and 1940s, the shag is characterized by energetic hopping from one foot to the other. The word perhaps comes from the sense of ‘shag’ meaning ‘to hang down in a shaggy manner’.
14. mashed potato
One of the dance forms immortalized in the Contour’s 1962 hit ‘Do You Love Me’ (along with the Twist), the mashed potato was a popular dance of the early 1960s in the US. The dance was characterized by repeated sideways steps.
Resembling a lively minuet, this dance in triple time is a Breton origin, and was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today, the heebie-jeebies refer to a ‘state of nervous fear or anxiety’. However, at one point, the term referred to a dance style in the mid-1920s.
Moshing is the act of dancing frenetically or violently to rock music, especially punk or hardcore, often with the intent of colliding with other dancers. Mosh is apparently a variant of mash. The area in front of the stage at a rock show where moshing occurs is sometimes referred to as a mosh pit.
Named after one of the largest cities in South Carolina, the Charleston is a fast dance developed in the 1920s and is characterized by turning the knees inward and kicking the ankles out.
The polonaise is a slow, stately dance of Polish origin, which consists of an intricate march or procession of the dancers in couples. Polonaise comes from the French polonaise, which is the feminine form of polonaise, or ‘Polish’.
A very popular dance in the early 1940s, the jitterbug was performed chiefly to swing or ‘boogie-woogie’ music, and consisted of a few standard steps, which were then augmented by improvisation. The word comes from jitter, ‘to move in an agitated manner’, and bug, ‘a person obsessed by an idea’ or ‘an enthusiast’.
A southern Italian dance popular since the 15th century, the tarantella was once supposed to be a remedy for tarantism, ‘a psychological illness characterized by an extreme impulse to dance’. Prevalent in southern Italy from the 15th to the 17th century, the illness was widely believed at the time to have been caused by the bite of a tarantula.
An early form of reggae music that emerged in Jamaica in the early 1960s, rocksteady is known for its slow, swaying tempo. As you might imagine, the dance associated with rocksteady is not particularly agitated; the movements typically involve the swaying of the body and arms backwards and forwards.
A popular ballroom dance that originated in the US, the foxtrot consists of alternative measures of long and short steps.
24. bunny hug
This dance to ragtime rhythm dates back to the early 20th century, and sounds far more adorable than its contemporary the foxtrot.
A lively dance in 3/4 time for a couple, fandango is popular in Spain and Spanish America. The word fandango is Spanish, and is alleged to ultimately be of African origin. In English, the word can also refer to a ‘foolish or useless act or thing’ or an ‘elaborate or complicated process or activity’.
Samba refers to a Brazilian dance of African origin, as well as to a ballroom dance imitative of the original and the music accompanying these dances. The word samba is from Portuguese and is probably African in origin.
A popular rock ’n‘roll dance of the 1960s, boogaloo is characterized by swivelling and shuffling movements of the body. Boogaloo is probably an alteration of boogie, modeled after hullabaloo.
28. Lambeth Walk
First used as the title of a Cockney song and dance performed by Lupino Lane in the 1937 revue Me and my Gal, the Lambeth Walk caught on and became a popular UK social dance with a walking step.
The pogo was a punk rock dance of the 1970s, whose movements are suggestive of jumping up and down on a pogo stick.
30. Lindy Hop
A black American dance that originated in Harlem, New York City in the late 1920s, the Lindy took its name from Charles A. Lindbergh (1902–74), the American pilot who became the first to make a non-stop, solo transatlantic flight in 1927.
Anyone ever told you that something was a cakewalk? Originally, a cakewalk referred to a contest in black communities in the southern US, in which participants were judged by the grace of their walking, and the winner would receive a cake. The graceful, walking movements of this dance were inspired by the contest.
A popular dance of the 1960s, the Watusi dance takes its name from the minority racial group in Rwanda and Burundi. (Watusi, however, is considered dated; the term Tutsi is preferred.) The Watusi is one of several songs mentioned in the song ‘Land of 1000 Dances’, made famous by Wilson Pickett in 1966. The song also mentions the pony, the mashed potato, and the jerk.
A dance based on the popular 1993 song ‘Macarena’ by the Spanish duo Los del Río, the Macarena consists of set movements performed to the song’s fast Latin rhythm. Macarena is a popular Spanish female first name.
In order to limbo, a dancer bends backwards and passes under a horizontal bar that is raised only a few inches off the ground. Limbo is the dance’s West Indian name, and is unrelated to the other sense of limbo, an ‘uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution’.
Made popular at the public balls in Paris, the cancan is a lively, high-kicking dance that often incorporates provocative body movements. The word cancan probably comes from a child’s word for canard ‘duck’, from Old French caner ‘to quack’.
The rumba is a rhythmic dance of Afro-Cuban origin, which is danced on the spot with pronounced hip movement. The word rumba comes from the Cuban Spanish rumba ‘party, spree’.
Resembling the foxtrot, the shimmy is accompanied by simulated quivering or shaking of the body. The dance first achieved wide popularity in the early 1920s. Shimmy is apparently a corruption of chemise.
Anything to add to our list of dances? Let us know!